Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Richie. 1998)

``Lock, Stock, etc. seems more like an exercise in style than anything else...."

After you have seen this many movies it becomes more and more difficult to not have a “seen that” mentality towards things that are not incredibly original. Sometimes I struggle to look past the obvious influences that filmmakers have, and I end up passing them off as completely unoriginal. This is my problem with Guy Richie. Not only does he make the same movie over and over again, but he also lacks any consistent originality. His considered masterpiece, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels , is not exception to this rule. From Performance to Pulp Fiction to (most notably) Reservoir Dogs, it is obvious that Richie has seen a lot of movies in his time. And he is maybe more interested in remaking them then he ever was in writing them on his own…

Guy Richie is a filmmaker from the seemingly endless list of “style over substance” directors of the 90’s. He rose to fame with Lock, Stock only after the lively Quentin Tarantino opened the door for his type of freewheeling style. Like Tarantino, you can see heavy influence in most of Richie’s work. Not only that, but you can also easily see that Richie, like QT, has no particular interest in pushing his plot. So what makes them different? Well, QT managed to make these flamboyant movie-making tricks into a sort of personal trademark. After we see anything else, we have all been there and done that. Lock, Stock is an exercise in been there and done that.

Though this does make the film less good, it does not make it a bad film. Lock, Stock follows the story of four working class friends who get caught up in the infamous scum factory that is the London underground. After losing a very high stakes card game, the friends find themselves in a massive debt to a mob boss and pornography lord. If they do not pay their half a million pound debt in one week, they each will start losing appendages at the hands of the colossal, Barry the Baptist.

This is the diving board that launches our heroes into a sea of flat plot twists and unnecessary roundabout. But this is what a film like this is banking on. Richie is not afraid to use everything from cursing to throw away gags to keep you interested in his film’s style. As the writer and director, Richie added scenes and dialogue that you can almost tell makes him boyishly proud. At what cost to the film? The main characters all fall victim to overbearing style as a viewer may never even find it necessary to learn any person’s name. Richie just parades characters in front of the screen for long enough to help us remember that they exist. By the middle of the picture, you start to wish that people were wearing name tags. There are too many characters, and not enough action for all of them.

I do think that Richie intentionally added a lovable character to the film in order to drive the marketing. We are all familiar with the former soccer star, Vinnie Jones, who rose to fame after getting a handful of opponent testicles during a match. He plays Big Chris. A hired hand for the antagonist, Chris has a certain wit and humor to him that makes him the most energetic aspect of Lock, Stock. He also has a deep, and easy to sympathize with, love for his adolescent son – who he allows to ride shotgun during his work. This relationship is also the only emotional connection in the entire film; there is no love story in Lock, Stock. Lord knows, THAT would be too much.

When it comes down to it, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels really is not an easy film to follow. It is too fast, too British and it features way too many characters. Most of the violence is either cut away from or completely off screen. This leaves the viewer guessing what happened to some of the most invested characters. This is also a film that much too closely resembles the first half of Performance, and anything made by QT. Guy Richie is an unoriginal filmmaker who uses undeniable style to distract you from his inability to show you something new. Even his style is ripped-off.

Believe it or not, I still think that Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a very entertaining picture show. It is made to be watched with some popcorn and a rewind button (you WILL need to re-hear some of that thick cockney dialogue) nearby. You may enjoy the film, but I promise you will think that you have seen it all before. Because you have…..

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: B-

My Next Film....Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles. 971)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Last Laugh (Murnau. 1924)

"There are no title cards telling us what the images are - they are allowed to speak for themselves."

F.W. Murnau is a master storyteller. If you are ever given the opportunity to watch a film made by the great German expressionist, I promise that you are in for a treat. Murnau is rightfully most famous for his pioneering work with horror films. He is the man responsible for the legendary imagery behind Nosferatu and Faust (1926). But somewhere hiding in his filmography is a gem entitled The Last Laugh. Though this film can be considered terrifying, it is not, by any means, a horror film. Knowing this ahead of time, I was worried about silly things like progression and watchablity. But Murnau managed to surprise me with what has become one of my all time favorite silent films.

The Last Laugh
is a silent film from 1924. I understand that most of my readers will ignore the film based on that last sentence alone. This is even more unfortunate than usual because The Last Laugh is one of the easiest classic films to watch that I have ever seen. Murnau chose to not use any dialogue cards; the entire story is told through physical movements and body language. And though that sounds like a rough watch, everything has an unaltered flow to it. This has to do with a couple of working aspects starting with the screenplay.

Carl Mayer, the screenwriter, wrote what was sure to become one of the all time great expressionist screenplays. The story follows an elderly man who works as a prestigious porter at a luxurious hotel. He loves his job and does it very well. Murnau and Mayer spend the first twenty minutes of the film showing you the love he has for his work and the respect that he has from his family and neighbors. They also greatly emphasis the porter's love for his golden uniform. But, after his boss finds him taking a break, all of that respect and love is taken away. The porter has been fired from his post, stripped of his uniform and reduced to the lowly task of restroom resident. Humiliated and beaten down, the old man never truly regains happiness in life.*

Of course, the most important part of a film like this is having a main character who is worth sympathizing over. Emil Jannings plays the role of the elderly hotel porter. If you are like me, you find that name strangely familiar. Yes, this is the same Emil Jannings who was awarded the first ever Academy Award for best actor in 1929. And though the Academy was not handing out awards in 1924, his performance in The Last Laugh is undoubtedly his best work. He is heartbreaking as the over-the-hill working man. His representation of a post-WWI stiff in Germany is outright brilliant. Every movement is perfectly calculated, and every facial expression says more than any dialogue card ever could. In one scene, we see the porter being manually stripped of his much-beloved uniform. I challenge you to watch Jannings' eyes throughout this scene's entirety. You will progress to the next moment as a different person. Jannings shows us what silent film acting is supposed to look like.

The thing that surprised me most about The Last Laugh was how easy it was to watch. Some silent films, especially those without any cutaways, have a tendency to drag on and become unwatchable. Murnau obviously concentrated greatly on flow and rhythm to make his picture seem more moving. This is not a film that looks like 1924 in quality, nor does it have the monotonous lollygag of a more modern melodrama. Instead, the audience is treated to a perfectly paced and genuinely saddening film.

The Last Laugh is a foreign/silent film that was made before your grandparents were born, but this does not mean it should be ignored. Murnau gives gifts to the fans of cinema with his mastery in camerawork, story progressing and agenda manipulating. I loved The Last Laugh for a multitude of reasons from acting to direction. It is an all time great tear-jerker.

*NOTE* I am reviewing this film based off of the original and intended ending. The studio forced an ill-advised twist to the end of this picture to make it happy. This ending is disgustingly out of place, and I would advise any filmgoer to simply ignore it.

The Last Laugh: B

My Next Film....Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Richie. 1998)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Naked Spur (Mann. 1953)

"Do business with the Devil and you get it every time...."

What do I like about the western? Oh goodness, there so many things. I like the untamed feeling of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), the bravado of The Searchers (1956) and even the lesbian undertones of a western like Johnny Guitar. The western is a genre that can focus on so many things because it is not a genre of substance. Any film based in the "old west" is a western. Because of this, it is a genre that can convey all sorts of messages. That is the brilliance of a film like The Naked Spur.

Though this film is classified as a western, it plays out more like a stage drama. Instead of featuring several Native American stereotypes, tobacco spitting renegades or ruthless backwoodsmen, The Naked Spur focuses on emotions and inner dealings. It is smarter than almost any western that I have ever seen. In fact, it is one of the few westerns to ever be nominated for an Academy Award in the writing category. As the third successful Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaboration, this a film that leaves its mark - even after an incredibly uneventful ending.

The Naked Spur tells the story of a bounty hunter named Howard Kemp (Stewart) who is looking to capture a killer named Ben Vandergroat. In the very early moments it seems like Kemp has caught his man. He enlists the help of two bystanders in order to bring Vandergroat to justice. After their man is captured, the two helpers realize that Kemp is only after Vandergroat because he has a $5,000 reward on his head. Now these men are partners and demand an equal share of the money.

This would all be very simple if Kemp did not have a hidden need for the $5,000. Once a successful farmer, Kemp lost his ranch and needs the reward money to buy it back. His new partners are not moved by the story, and Ben very quickly figures a plan to save himself from a hanging.

While on the trip to collect the reward money, Vandergroat uses human greed as a weapon against his three captures. He manages to turn them against each other and even convinces one of them to help him escape. This is what separates The Naked Spur from other films. It deals specifically with flawed men who try to do right by themselves. There is no perfect hero, and no real reason to side with anyone. The closest thing we get to a hero is Howard Kemp. But as he gets closer and closer to cashing in, even he loses focus on the human life at stake. He only sees Ben as a bag of reward money. He has become obsessed.

All of this emotional action serves as a background for a blossoming love story. When Vandergroat was captured, he brought along his "friend", Lina Patch. Played by Janet Leigh, Lina is young, naive and will follow Ben on his every word. After she sees him trying to commit horrible crimes, she begins to fall in love with Kemp. This love triangle theme only adds to Vandergroat's plans for escape. It is a complicated scheme that he is trying to pull off, and it almost works.

Jimmy Stewart is not an actor that carries himself as a cowboy. In fact, his look is almost the opposite of what you would expect for a leading man in a western. With that being said, he still managed to have a very profitable career making films like this. The Naked Spur is my favorite Stewart performance because he uses all of his range as Howard Kemp. He is sensitive, love-stricken, crazed, confused, strong and submissive. And he is perfectly complemented by his perfect cast mates and skillful director.

For me, this film does have one ENORMOUS problem. The ending is incredibly anticlimactic. By the time the film is over, you forget the idea of winners and losers because The Naked Spur doesn't really give you a reason to cheer for the winner. It drags you through an emotional plot for almost an hour and a half - just so it can dump a formula ending on the top of you. This was a film that came close to perfect, but falls short when it wraps the story. It was a major disappointment.

Jimmy Stewart is a Hollywood legend, and his westerns are some of the greatest ever made. If you are interested in this wide genre, I would strongly recommend The Naked Spur (which is obviously supposed to stand for greed). This is a film that could have had it all, but falls just short. Still, it is a fun and memorable film with an original plot and interesting performances.

The Naked Spur: B-

My Next Film...The Last Laugh (Murnau. 1924)

Scarface (Hawks. 1932)

"The shame of a nation..."

How does one distinguish an anti-hero from a villain? I am not sure that there are any clear lines that make this possible. The very first line of Scarface: The Shame of the Nation tells us that this is not a film about any kind of (anti) hero. "This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty." We are not supposed to be cheering for the men and women in Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, but this film has so much working for it that not cheering seems impossible.

This is the exact problem that director Howard Hawks faced when he made this film. Though it was filmed in 1930,Scarface was forced into heavy edits and was not released until 1932. Why did it need the edits? 1930 was a dangerous time in American history, and political figures were afraid that this film would promote the idolization of gang members. I think their worries were somewhat warranted.

Scarface is loosely based on the life of the famous gangster, Al Capone, and follows the story of a young gang member named Antonio 'Tony' Camonte. Played brilliantly by Paul Muni, Camonte is not unlike the more famous "Scarface" played by Al Pacino. They start small, are obsessed with their sister and meet a tragic end. The biggest difference in these characters is that Muni's Scarface has a sort of underlying fear inside that Pacino's was not responsible enough to possess. He lacked an understanding of what it took to be a man in the mixed up underground. He probably had these qualities because Hawks did not want the audience to side with him. As it turns out, we almost sympathized with him.

Camonte is obsessed with his sister, Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte. He is continuously using power and intimidation to force his will on Cesca. She is an eighteen year old girl who is stumbling through an age where sex is becoming more acceptable. Tony disagrees with the whole idea. He tears her clothes, slaps her when she acts out, locks her in her room and even murders her lovers. Some critics and historians have argued that Tony is secretly in love with his sister - who is very sexy. But I don't think that incest was a bubbling theme in 1932. And even if it was, I didn't notice it in Scarface.

What I did notice was the fact that this is an incredibly violent film. Scarface features a slew of gun crimes and drive by shooting scenes. It is no doubt that all of this was viewed as controversial in the early 30's. Characters are harmed or killed by a wide range of weapons from grenades to tommy guns. And though there is absolutely no blood or gore in Scarface, some of the scenes are so blatant that they make the audience uncomfortable.

At this point we are all familiar with how the story of Tony Camonte ends. It is obvious that Hawks is trying to make Tony look crazed and pathetic by the end of the film, but I almost feel sorry for the guy. He has lost everything. He thought the world was his, but he never actually stood a chance.

Scarface is one of the most infamous gangster films ever made. And though the "remake" is a better known picture, the original tries to be much more responsible. The message may be clearly stated, but it is hard to find during the action. If you look at this film like a movie and not like a public service announcement - you will enjoy it. This is an example of simple and excellent filmmaking. It is well acted, directed and put together.

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation: B

My Next Film...The Naked Spur (Mann. 1953)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rushmore (Anderson. 1998)

"The Max Fischer they give us is going to grow up into Benjamin Braddock. But there is an unrealized Max who would have become Charles Foster Kane."

Will I seem extraordinarily unhip if I give this film a bad review? Maybe. Will I seem hopelessly wide-eyed if I write wildly about how much this film works? Maybe. Either way, Rushmore is a film that seems to force friends to stand on opposite sides. Before I start this review I want to warn the hipsters of cyber space that their world does not stir my interests. This is a film that seems to be missing something important. Through this write up – I hope to figure out what that something is…

Our hero, of sorts, in this film is a student at Rushmore academy named Max Fischer. He is a smart, awkward and peculiar fifteen year old boy with a knack for ending up on top of a situation. Fischer is an instant hit with the audience. His unusual pull is powered by his completely original demeanor. Though he is an awful student, he is still very bright. He has the glaring potential to do anything, but he falls behind because he cannot stop doing everything. Max Fischer is a walking contradiction of cinematic stereotypes. He is one half Ferris Bueller, one half Benjamin Braddock and one whole conglomerate of mixed up emotions and ideas. This character was created by Wes Anderson and his long time friend, Owen Wilson. He is brought to life by the perfectly cast Jason Schwartzman.

Schwartzman is the most valuable asset to Rushmore. His performance is so sinister that we never once question the ridiculousness of his character. We see Fischer writing and putting together disgustingly elaborate stage shows that could never be produced in the presented school setting. But we never question it. We believe that Max was able to pull it off. We start to believe that Max Fischer can do anything. Until we meet Ms. Cross.

Rosemary Cross is a teacher at Rushmore that Max fancies. Played by Olivia Williams, Ms. Cross is presented as a moral intellectual to counter Fischer’s unique character traits. The most hilarious part of the entire film is the scene where Ms. Cross finally tells Max that she is too old for him. Her delivery is stark, serious and cold. “Has it ever crossed your mind that you're far too young for me?” Max’s reply is somehow starker, more serious and even colder. “It crossed my mind that you might consider that a possibility, yeah.” Now we are dealing with some interesting ideas. How does a boy, who never fails, deal with failure. I wish the film would have traveled down this path for the remainder, but instead Anderson and Wilson took a turn for the sophomoric. And we are cheated.

This is where we introduce the comedic talents of the legendary Bill Murray. Herman Blume is a self-loathing business tycoon who hates almost every facet of his life. He is strikingly similar to Max in his behavior. He is childish, stubborn, awkward and overbearing. His admiration for Max is rivaled only by his jealously of the youngster’s opportunities. And as Blume continues to follow Max’s lead, he also falls head over feet for Ms. Cross. Insert hilarity? No sir.

It is here that I lose interest in Rushmore as a comedy. Anderson and Wilson managed to create two of the most original characters that I have ever seen in a comedy, but they make the mistake of putting them on opposite sides of the film. I feel like they dangled perfectly written dialogue in front of my face only to snatch it away to save their film’s independent feel. By the end, I was longing for more Schwartzman/Murray interaction…lots more of it. Their characters were molded flawlessly, but we were cheated out of something special.

Bill Murray has made a career out of his hilarious supporting roles. In fact, I am more interested in his second billings than I have ever been in a film that he has starred in. Rushmore is a film that allows its supporting stars to steal the show. And though Murray gives his second best performance here, this is my major problem with the whole thing.

Jason Schwartzman was lucky enough to be handed one of the most enigmatic and frustrating characters I have ever seen. He stands his ground as a “leading man”, but it is the writing that lets him down. Wilson and Anderson could have taken us into a much deeper, darker place with their comedy. They had the ability to make a lasting picture that would have broken the “occasional chuckle” norm that Rushmore lulls you in to. Even the film’s quirk is not enough to save it from formulaic plot driving. I did not want a happy ending for Max Fischer. And I again feel cheated.

Rushmore has developed a massive cult audience of baby hipsters and scene kids, and for solid reasons. This is a film that is different for the sake of being different. Its insistence on being original is what choked the originality of its very compelling characters. Like Roger Ebert said, “The Max Fischer they give us is going to grow up into Benjamin Braddock.” This, for me, is unfortunate because his story has already been told. Guess what? I feel cheated again....

Rushmore: C+

My Next Film...Scarface (Hawks. 1932)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cat People (Tourneur. 1942)

"You can fool everybody, but laudie dearie me, you can't fool a cat. They seem to know who's not right."

What kind of film can you consider a cult classic? I have already written about the most famous cult film ever made, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but that does not mean that the 1077 Films to See Before You Die would exclude the rest of this classic genre. One of the most famous cult films in history, Cat People is a film that sets the boundaries between drama, comedy and horror film. It is a classic RKO picture that has captured the hearts of cult fans around the world.

Cat People tells the story of Serbian immigrant named Irena Dubrovna. Thanks to Serbian legend, Irena believes that she will turn into a cat-human killer if she ever becomes intimate with her new husband, Oliver Reed. Irena, played by the breathtakingly gorgeous Simone Simon, is a beautiful and naive young woman. She is afraid of the curses that her country has left her with, but she is still in love with Oliver. The problem is that Oliver has been patient enough. He wants to kiss his wife. Why can he not kiss his newly married wife? We have to watch the whole movie to find out.

This is the fundamental flaw behind Cat People. Though it is only a little over an hour long, this film is very slow from the start. It takes almost a full hour to make the audience care about anyone besides Irena. The plot is pushed in almost every single line of dialogue, but the action never seems to match up. It is like waiting for Jack to come out of his box, but he never does. You are left on the couch just turning the crank.

But this was the trend with a lot of classic RKO pictures. They built up the drama with campy acting and silly presentations. For 1942, Cat People is surprisingly thin when it comes to camp. Simone Simon is very gentle in her portrayal of the troubled immigrant. She is very easy to sympathize with and, most importantly, she is easy to believe. We are on her side for the whole production. It is a fine example of B-movie character development.

Here is what I am forced to wonder: did Tourneur and the crew mean to make a B-movie? There is a certain underlying feeling throughout Cat People that screams to be taken seriously. Maybe it is the performances that make this happen. Maybe it is the dark, yet comical, themes presented throughout that manage to stick with you. This is a confusing picture because you can almost see the actors wasting its potential with simple deliveries of emotional lines. But isn't that what makes a B-movie so fun to watch?

If anything, Cat People has a very entertaining climax. Though the film is slow to the point of making you sleepy, its ending is enough to save the experience. To me, Cat People seems like a film I will reserve for popcorn date night. It is fun, light and short. But it is also exhausting. This cinematic oxymoron is simply made for the right people in the right mood. And if you can get into the right mood - you cannot go wrong with this film. I liked it a great deal, but I wish that it had more to offer.

Cat People: C+

My Next Film...Rushmore (Anderson. 1998)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Zero for Conduct (Vigo. 1933)

"But there is plot setting up for a revolt..."

How do you remember your childhood? More importantly, how do you remember school? If you were a happy child - then I recommend that you watch Brady Bunch reruns to find relatable adolescent characters. For the rest of us, we have the 1933 Jean Vigo classic, Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite). Originally banned in France for its depiction of youth rebellion, this is a short, light and fluffy film that did little more than serve its purpose for a viewer.

Zéro de conduite is written and directed by Jean Vigo. As a director, Vigo was not unfamiliar with controversies. This picture was banned in France until after WWII, and his masterpiece, L'Atalante (1934), was heavily edited before it could ever be released. Vigo was a founding father for the French "New Wave" age of cinematic expression, and he pioneered the concepts of poetic realism in his pictures. What confuses me is that Zéro de conduite does not fit inside either of those genre boundaries. It is a film that stays very lighthearted throughout the entire showing. The children are smart, organized and charming enough to act as interesting main characters - and there is never really any clear danger that hinders our desired outcome. It is very straightforward.

Zéro de conduite tells the story of students living at a boarding school under repressive rules. The title refers to an academic mark that they can receive for acting out of proper character. The boys see their teachers' actions as unfair, and they decided to plot revenge. Their school is about to have a large celebration that will have several important people in attendance. This is the students chance to get back at the administration.

Their idea of revenge? They stand on the rooftops and bombard the adults with everything from books to tin cans. This scene is particularly hilarious because of how the boys react to their success. This is a victory for the students. And though we never see the consequences - we do not really care. We are just as youthful and rebellious as the children. Bring on the punishment. We can take it.

Made in 1933, Zéro de conduite is a film that seems elementary even for its time. We know that film techniques were limited in these early years, but Vigo does not seem to even be interested in trying. This is a film that keeps everything very simple. The plot, direction, acting and scenery are all one dimensional. It is a very easy movie to follow. I would recommend this to anyone interested in French culture, or anyone looking for a different type of fluff-comedy. Deemed a masterpiece upon further review, Zéro de conduite is a film that I can take or leave. There is nothing bad about it, but it lacks any memorable value.

Zero for Conduct: C

My Next Film....Cat People (Tourneur. 1942)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rebel Without A Cause (Ray. 1955)

"If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace...."

When we are first introduced to Jim Stark, he is in a state that has altered many a teenager. He is extremely intoxicated and eventually taken in by the local police. He is a young man who is very confused. His family is constantly moving from town to town in an attempt to keep him out of trouble. Jim Stark is the antithesis of our romanticized 1950's teenager. From the opening scene alone, we learn that Rebel Without A Cause is not a film that will look romantically toward teenage life. This is a rough and harsh look into several themes that people were not willing to discuss at the time. Rebel is remembered as a great film, but an excellent historical documentation of life in a turbulent point in history.

Some have argued that Rebel has not aged very well, and I cannot honestly disagree. In today's world, the themes and undertones do not really have much power. This was a film that spoke to the baby-boom generation. As the babies of the boom became teens, confusion and boredom became larger problems. The disconnect between teens and adults expanded to an almost unsalvageable distance. Crime and gang rates skyrocketed simply because teens were looking for something to do with their time.

This idea is prominently displayed all throughout Rebel. After a horrible first day of school, Jim is challenged to a chickie-run by the bully of the school, Buzz Gunderson. It is later established that Buzz likes Jim and would like to be his friend. Hearing this, Jim asks "Why do we do this?". To which Buzz answers "You've gotta do something. Don't you?". They are risking their lives for the simple purpose of killing boredom. Lord knows, they cannot get this fulfillment through their home lives.

Jim lives at home with his emasculated father, overbearing mother and domineering grandmother. He is desperate to relate to his father, but he simply cannot for very obvious reasons. In one brutal scene we see Jim's father wearing a frilly yellow kitchen apron in an attempt to serve dinner to his working wife. He drops the dinner plate on the floor and frantically tries to pick it up before she sees. Jim finds this pathetic. He tells his father to leave it there - that she cannot hurt him for dropping a plate. He tries to get his father to stand up for himself, but he cannot. The sadness of it all forces Jim to sit and laugh at his father's misfortune.

But Jim Stark is not the only rebel without a cause in this picture. Natalie Wood plays the beautiful and trouble making, Judy. She is struggling to have a positive relationship with her father. In one scene, she tries to kiss her father before dinner. Embarrassed by it all, her father responds with "What's the matter with you? You're getting too old for that kind of stuff. Girls your age don't do things like that." Judy answers back with "Girls don't love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?" It is hinted that her father may have an underlying sexual attraction to his daughter. And though Judy is only looking for affection, her father is not in a position to provide that for her.

And finally, in classic Nicholas Ray fashion, we have Sal Mineo's character in Rebel. Mineo plays John 'Plato' Crawford. He is a disturbed boy from a broken home. His father is dead, or away. His story is always changing. His mother is always away, and he is raised by his housekeeper. Ray and screenwriter Irving Shulman had to have known that Plato was a homosexual character. Like in Johnny Guitar, Ray was able to sneak a homosexual undertone into his film. This was far more difficult to pick up on in 1955, but today it is really obvious.He makes up romantic fantasies about his friendship with Jim. He pretends that he and Jim have been life long friends. In the planetarium he touches Jim's shoulder and whispers in his ear with no concern for image. He is the most compelling and troubled character in the film - and his secret homosexual urges toward Jim lift the picture with melodramatic hands.

Rebel Without a Cause also features one of the most famous performances in all of film history. Jim Stark has become the most remembered and influential character in the short career of James Dean. This film was released shortly after his death - which is almost eery. Dean's acting may not have aged any better than his films, but he assists the film's bubbling awkwardness with this performance. Some say that Dean's work in Rebel resembles a watered down Brando, but I do not see it as that black-and-white.

Dean was a talented actor who would have had an all time great career, but his untimely death kept that from happening. In this picture, he shows his acting range. Along with Brando, Dean helped mold the "new man" of the 50's and 60's. He was smart, sensitive, kind and confused. He made those traits manly. And yes, Jim Stark does lack the raw emotional power of Brando's Stanley Kowalski, but what it lacked in substance it made up for with style.

Rebel Without A Cause is a film about life in the 1950's, made by people who were living in that time. The film warns adults of the growing generational gap. Its willingness to break the rules almost foreshadows the emergence of Elvis Presley, rock and roll and the sexual revolution. With dealings in homosexuality, abandonment, crime, lies and understandings - Rebel Without A Cause is more educational than entertaining. Which is saying something. It is a very entertaining film.

Rebel Without A Cause: A-

My Next Film....Zero for Conduct (Vigo. 1933)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles. 2006)

"Although Kazakhstan a glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social, and Jew."

People have argued since the beginning of oral society. What do they argue about? Well, they argue about everything. Film is no exception for the argumentative masses, as some pictures have been able to ignite intense debate across the country and world. In my time as a cinemophile, I cannot think of a film that causes more arguments than Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This is a film that got under the skin of all sorts of people for a variety of reasons. Rather than telling you what this film is about - I would like to focus on the fearsome debates that surrounded it.

One interesting aspect of Borat is that it sparks debate amongst several different types of people. For example, there was never a doubt that this film would draw the attention of the conservative politician, religious fundamentalist or concerned parent, but it also re-lit the fuse on a few of film snobbery's favorite debates. Can a film be so stupid that it is actually ingenious? Can a movie be so offensive that it is not offensive at all? Can a film on this level of ridiculousness really leave moviegoers with a more mature view of the outside world? This is the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's character and screenplay. He answers those pressing questions, and then flips the proverbial bird at his haters while he polishes his Golden Globe.

Can a film be so stupid that it is actually ingenious?

If Borat is anything, it is a stupid movie. This does not mean that it is made for stupid people. It tells the story of a bumbling, goodhearted television personality from the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. He (Borat) is sent to the "U S and A" to try and learn how to improve life in his country. As he goes about on his adventures, he acts in a way that we would normally see as pretty dumb. But an educated eye will eventually realize that he is trying to point out how little understanding Americans have of foreign cultures. In our defense, I would not categorize Borat as an easy person to understand. He is an anti-Semitic homophobe who carries around pictures of his son's naked penis in his wallet. He is constantly referencing the raping of his countries women and the customary killing of gypsies. He is our xenophobic nation's worst nightmare because he is curious and we do not understand how to help him. This is a film that makes us, white America, feel pretty stupid. When you can see this, you can see the ingenious design behind the entire production.

Can a movie be so offensive that it is not offensive at all?

Comedies have always been able to get away with presenting more offensive material. Mel Brooks has made a living off of showing us offensive material in way that makes us laugh (The Producers, Blazing Saddles). But Borat takes everything one step further. Unlike Brooks, Cohen is doing and saying offensive things in front of an unsuspecting audience. Several scenes are filmed in a "candid camera" sort of way that glorifies the horrific reactions of the film's reluctant supporting cast members. This adds a bit more power to the film's comedic effect, but this does not make it any less offensive. How does Borat pull this off? Charles and Cohen present everything with a thick outer layer of ridiculousness that helps the viewer realize that what Borat is doing/saying is not okay.

Can a film on this level of ridiculousness really leave moviegoers with a more mature view of the outside world?

This is the most prominent positive feature of Borat. This is a film that hides under a blanket of stupidity, but is really a satire of the most obnoxious variety. The film opens with our main character explaining the wonder of his home nation. We are shown the ignorance of the people in "Kazakhstan." But when Borat gets to the United States, he show us that we not much better. This is most noticeable in a scene where Borat is singing the National Anthem at a large rodeo. Before he sings, he gives a long speech about how American should slaughter and kill all of their enemies without remorse. The crowd goes crazy over this. Borat shows us that there is not a lot of difference between the Islamic extremists, idiotic frat boys, backwards rednecks and white America.

When it was released, some critics were naming Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan the funniest film ever made. To me, that bold of a statement is as ridiculous as the film itself. At times, Borat is side-splitting. The jokes never stop coming. It is an educational satire on American life. But I do warn you - if you do not see the hilarity in Boart's willingness to expose stupidity, you probably will not find this film very amusing. I find it very smart, interesting, daring and well...Very Nice!

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: B-

My Next Film...Saturday Night Fever (Badham. 1977)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flaming Creatures (Smith. 1963)

"Today Ali Baba comes. Ali Baba comes today."

Sometimes I feel like the 1077 Films to See Before You Die is a list that likes to torture its followers. Though every film on this list is supposed to have some kind of importance in the history of movie making, I have struggled to find merit in a number of the pictures I have watched. Some films, like Dog Star Man, were made from interesting ideas. While others, like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, do not seem to have any redeeming qualities at all. Flaming Creatures is a film like none that I have ever seen. It is perverted, trashy and important only because it helped define cinematic vulgarity.

Flaming Creatures was directed and written by the provocative filmmaker, Jack Smith. Here is a man that had no interest in entertaining the masses. I am not sure that his films could even entertain himself. He was a major proponent in simple aesthetics. He was the godfather of the underground film world, and he is credited with creating the drag-queen culture as we now know it. Smith was also a major influence on the films of Andy Warhol and the movies of John Waters. All of his films, with Flaming Creatures being the most incendiary, were shot under incredibly small budgets. But Smith was never worried about how much money it cost to make a movie.

According to underground legend, Smith filmed Flaming Creatures on stock film that he had actually shoplifted. It has also been said that he paid his actors in either gay sex or drugs. True or not, this still remains one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen. It is a parade of camp-queens, transvestites, hermaphrodites and prostitutes mixed in with the occasional flaccid penis or saggy breast. There is no noticeable story being told, but Smith had said that his work was showing you "a comedy set in a haunted music studio.” I must have missed this, because all I saw was the showing of some very questionable acts amongst one of the cheapest looking sets I have ever seen.

If I have to give this film any credit, I will say that the images were exhaustively challenging for my poor Midwestern eyes. I was made uncomfortable almost immediately, and I would go as far as to say I was disgusted at times. Flaming Creatures is one of the most emotionally disturbing works in film that I have seen. But it does not frighten you. It uses music and absurd imagery to make you uncomfortable. You would have to be a pretty weird person to not be challenged by Jack Smith.

In one of the only secular moments of Flaming Creatures, we see an actress getting raped by way of cunnilingus. We are treated to the intense visual of a woman being held down and violated by more than one male figure. Of course, these men are naked and performing all sorts of “hand acts” on each others limp penises. This type of perverted sexuality becomes normality throughout the 45 minute running time. It is not an easy film to sit through.

Obviously, any film that features this type of rough imagery comes with loads of controversy. In fact, Flaming Creatures was seized by New York police directly following its debut screening. Along with Jack Smith, the film became a target of the infamous idiot, Strom Thurmond, during his crusade to end all pornography. Do not get confused – this is not a pornographic film. It is a classic work in performance art. And though we would all love to pretend that this genre does not exist…we still know that it does. And in terms of successful endeavors in the genre – Flaming Creatures isn’t really all THAT bad. I will never watch it again, but some esteemed opinions, like Frederico Fellini, hail this picture as a masterpiece in trash cinema.

Yes, Jack Smith may be an under credited influence on the Waters’ and Warhol’s of the world, but this does not make his films entertaining in any conventional sort of the word. This is the type of film that a pedophile would enjoy. And though I defend Smith’s right to make trash, I also understand why the backlash forced him to withdraw from making films. Smith would go on to become a major pioneer in surrealist theatre. He worked in this field until his death of AIDS related complications in 1989. He was 56 years old.

Flaming Creatures: F

My Next Film....Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles. 2006)

Fight Club (Fincher. 1999)

"Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush.."

Machismo is the downfall to most of modern society. Masculinity is such a thin concept that it is often found in the strangest of places. Testosterone is a major player in this game, and it often causes lackluster messages to come off as incredibly masculine or tough. I am a firm believer that a good film should make you feel something. David Fincher's Fight Club is a film that makes the audience feel. My problem does not sit in the fact that the film is poorly made. In fact, it is very well made. My problem sits with what the film makes an audience feel. Fight Club is one of the most irresponsible films ever released.

Released just months after the disasters at Woodstock '99, Fight Club is a film that unabashedly takes advantage of the rising levels of testosterone in young American boys. It is a film that depicts extreme violence as not only cool, but also as a measure of a person's manhood. We know that, in real life, people are very breakable, but Fight Club is shot in such a uniquely stylized way that it turns violence into some kind of horrible game. It creates a world where real life characters are maimed and hurt in a way that we usually reserve for our comic books and video games. When this violence is meant to resemble real life - we enter a world that we have no business inhabiting. This is what makes the film so dangerous.

Before we explore this idea any further, it is important that I acknowledge the working aspects of Fight Club. Fincher is a director that legitimately tries to make art with his pictures. His works usually feature unique and difficult shooting styles and techniques. In this film, he uses quick, frantic edits to force a viewer onto the top of their head. Fight Club makes you dizzy. But not in a vomit-inducing way. It keeps spinning and blurring so quickly and repetitively that when it finally stops you are forced to sit back and cherish the peacefulness. Neat in concept, but not in practice.

Like most of Fincher's other works, this is a film that takes heavy advantage of color schemes and costume design. The browns and blacks that make up the set force a viewer into an underworld of discomfort and backwards morals. I hate the way that Fight Club makes me feel, but that is a win for David Fincher.

The film stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in, arguably, their most famous roles. In a nutshell, Fight Club is about a depressed everydayer and a demented soap salesman who start an underground organization that serves as a place to vent male aggression. And now we are back to the problem with this movie.

Pitt's Tyler Durden character is one of the least dimensional characters I have ever seen in a movie. As we later find out, he is a living embodiment of our violent boyhood fantasies. A sadist of sorts, Durden is the anti-ethos to anything that we should want in our hero. Unlike other violent films, this one does not have anything greater to say. Its fascist undertones are lost in the screenplay's inability to have Durden tell us something meaningful. I doubt that Fincher wanted us to like the character, but I find him to be on par with the stereotypical, violent, idiotic fraternity boy that we see on network television. His faux- intellectualism does nothing but give a viewer license to drink, smoke, curse and screw. Not to mention, fight.

This is proven by the number of actual "fight clubs" that were sprouting up all over the country after the film was released. Young boys, usually of high school or junior high age, were taking the film as seriously as it wanted to be taken. This led to numerous unwilling participants getting beaten for the sake of "fun." Not only this, but these same "fight clubbers" were posting their fights on the internet because they saw themselves as entertainers. We as consumers do not like to admit that movies have the influential powers to make us do stupid things, but the evidence is there. This is irresponsible film making.

"The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!" If this is the case, then the third rule should be: you DO NOT let your children watch Fight Club. And the final rule should be: you DO NOT make another movie like Fight Club. This is a film that deserves every letter of its R rating. It swims in the slums of your adolescent machismo.

Fight Club: D+

My Next Film....Flaming Creatures (Smith. 1963)

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Prestige (Nolan. 2006)

"Are you watching closely?"

I have been a fan of magic ever since I was a young boy. It does not matter how simple the trick is - if you can do magic I am in love with you. Because of my boyhood obsession with the art of magic, one would think that Christopher Nolan's The Prestige should be a film that I would really enjoy. But sadly, my relationship with this picture is a bit more complicated than that. As one of the youngest films on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, The Prestige defines the idea of a hit or miss popcorn movie. And though that may be viewed as a cop-out, I will still try my best to explain.

Christopher Nolan is one of the newest superstar directors of the blockbuster popcorn movie. His credits include the horrifically bad Batman Begins (2005), its sequel The Dark Knight (2008) and last summer's fanboy wet dream, Inception (2010). Nolan makes movies that are very entertaining, but he is not interested in making them well. The Prestige is the exception to that rule. What it has in craftsmanship, it lacks in withstanding entertainment value. This is where the review gets very particular.

I have to say that this is my second favorite film that Nolan has made, but I am not a fan of his in the first place. His films have developed a reputation for being incredible to see in the theatre, but awful films to watch after DVD release. Nolan usually makes movies for the biggest of screens, but The Prestige is again the exception. This is a film that is worth waiting for the Red Box release. I saw this twice in theatres when it was released in 2006. I loved it once. I hated it once. I have seen it multiple times since then and my sentiments are still split down the middle. I have no idea if The Prestige is a good movie because of how uninteresting it is after the initial viewing.

The film follows the story of two rival magicians in a time when being a magician was still a relevant celebrity profession. As the rivalry between the two, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), becomes more and more personal - you see that they are simply obsessed with their craft. They both risk their personal happiness, families and well being just to claim the top spot in the magic world. Once Borden performs his best trick, “The Transported Man”, Angier becomes crazed with curiosity over how the trick works. This begins the unfolding of a twisty plotline with very little filler space.

Christian Bale is not an actor that I am particularly fond of, but if I have to pick a performance of his I will always pick The Prestige. I cannot tell you what he does well in this film without giving away the shocking ending, but he tackles a task that is not easy for any actor. Hugh Jackman gives an absolutely incredible performance that drives the entire plot of the picture. You believe his obsession. And you follow his words with close attention.

An interesting aspect of Nolan’s screenplay is that it constantly switches which side you are on. The film starts with Borden irresponsibly tying a knot that constricts (and causes the drowning of) Angier’s wife in the middle of a crowded performance. This could be a classic example of magic gone wrong, but Borden was warned several times that his knot tying was not safe. Angier holds him responsible for his wife's death, and so does the audience.

But as the story progresses, Angier falls more deeply into the role of the enemy. This all comes to a climax when he sends his lover (Scarlett Johansson) away to spy on his rival, ending their relationship. The most memorable dive into the magician’s fragile psyche is when she tells Angier that none of this will bring his wife back. To which Angier exclaims – “I don’t care about my wife. I care about his (Borden’s) secrets!” Wow, he is lost in his need for revenge.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered and normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

Nolan succeeds with the first two parts of his magic trick, but he fails at the finale. The Prestige lacks exactly what the title promises because the story is never really brought back to the viewer. Though his concept was interesting – it spiraled out of control somewhere midway through “The Turn.” This is my problem with The Prestige. Watch it once, after that, never again.

The Prestige: C+

My Next Film....Fight Club (Fincher. 1999)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bonnie and Clyde (Penn. 1967)

“We rob banks”

Leading up to the 1960’s, American films had all been on a relatively even keel. It can be said that once The United States hit the counter-culture decade, the nation’s nerve for entertainment caught up to our frustration with the world. There were all sorts of movies being released that were unlike any that the people had ever seen. (Sex), (Ex) - ploitation films had become somewhat of an outlet for the ever growing youth in the country. But with more youth comes more frustration. And with frustration comes the need for an outlet. Bonnie and Clyde was that outlet. As sex and violence became less taboo, this film worked at shattering the remaining boundaries of popular culture.

This film tells the somewhat true story of the folk icons, The Barrow Gang. The people in charge of the gang are two of the most famous bank robbers in history, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Barrow was a small-time criminal who had served some jail time for armed robbery. He used his charm and obvious charisma to attract the attention of a smaller-time waitress in Parker. Together they formed a relationship of sorts. Though Barrow was no “lover boy”, he still fell in love with Bonnie. And how could you not? The audience sure does immediately without any problems.

Faye Dunaway is unfair. She is gorgeous and unmistakably talented. She brings a country charm to the role of Bonnie Parker that keeps this film sincere. Her desire to be loved by Clyde is one of the strongest undertones in the film, and her homesickness plays a major part in our sympathy for her character.

Warren Beatty, on the other hand, is maddening as Clyde Barrow. He plays the role very deliberately as a man lacking any confidence. The character is a very well put together mixture of manliness and hokey boyhood. It is almost like Beatty and Penn did not want us to know how to feel about Clyde. You will go the entire picture without trusting a word that he says, but we will cheer him on as he murders countless people. This may be the quintessential anti-hero in all of American film.

The supporting cast in Bonnie and Clyde can boast two Academy Award winners and two nominees in Gene Hackman (2-time winner), Estelle Parsons (winner for this film), Michael Pollard (nominated for this film) and Gene Wilder (2-time nominee) respectively. Each cast member supplies a memorable bit to the overall effect of the story. The more we learn about Pollard’s C.W. Moss the more we care about the Barrow Gang pathos. Hackman and Parsons keep the film grounded and emotionally challenging, especially Parsons. And Wilder works in a bit of humor to the whole thing. This is a brilliantly acted film.

But this is not why we remember Bonnie and Clyde. This film is very violent – with most of it being gun violence. And unlike other films of that decade, Bonnie and Clyde shows people being shot, their blood spilling and their bones splitting. Of course, these effects are very tame compared to what we have today, but it is still a very raw showing of what happens when bullets collide with skin and bone.

There are several other levels on which Bonnie and Clyde succeeds. The costuming in the film is brilliant, the cinematography is Academy Award winning and the ending is appropriately rewarding. The violence in the film is rivaled by our want to protect our “heroes” from the pain of the law. It may have simply been the mood in 1967, but you can almost see how the youth of that generation could relate with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. This is an all time great film that kept me entertained throughout the entire running time. In fact, I wished that there was more to it. Loved every second.

Bonnie and Clyde: A

My Next Film…The Prestige (Nolan. 2006)